1 August 2022

Second reading speech

It’s good to start this parliamentary week on such an important topic: our forestry and ensuring that we not only conserve our forests for future generations but also support a very important industry that employs thousands of people right around this country, particularly in my home state of Victoria. I note the comments by Senator Duniam as a former minister in this portfolio. It is a very important industry in his home state of Tasmania.

However, I want to just also make the point that the last election demonstrates, sadly, how irrelevant those opposite have become. The decision to bring forward this private senator’s bill in the first period of private senators’ business in this 47th Parliament says a lot and is just another example of how the opposition are scrambling to find any form of relevance right now. For a whole decade, there had been an absence of policy agenda, particularly when it came to forestry. Faced with the very first opportunity to put forward in the Senate a bill that will deliver jobs and actually strengthen the industry, the opposition bring forward a bill that is effectively out of date. It was superseded by events of last year. It really is concerning to see that, at the first opportunity, the shadow minister for forestry brings to this chamber a bill that no longer has any practical meaning or practical effect. I know it’s not his bill, and I should note that for the record. It is a bill that was put forward by Senator McKenzie in the previous parliament. But this bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Regional Forest Agreements) Bill 2020, is not really a serious legislative venture. Indeed, it has never been.

The bill was originally conceived by the former minister, Senator McKenzie. She effectively used this bill to wedge the previous administration during her time out of the ministry. This bill is nothing more than a stunt. It is nothing more than an attempt by the National Party to embarrass their Liberal colleagues.

Senator Scarr interjecting

Senator Scarr, I’m doing you and your colleagues a favour. It started as nothing more than the Nationals trying to do wedge politics against the Liberal Party when they were last in government.

The matter to which this bill pertains—that of the May 2020 decision of the Federal Court—has, just like those opposite, long since lost relevance. For those who are unfamiliar with this and are listening in to the chamber today, the decision by the Federal Court came as a judgement in the matter of Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum v VicForests. That decision’s impact upon the forestry industry was devastating, in my opinion. I note that there’ll be others who will have very different views. Just to be clear on that particular decision, in her interpretation of section 38(1) of the EPBC Act, Her Honour found that, in breaching the Victorian Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014, VicForests was no longer operating in accordance with a regional forestry agreement and thereby lost the so-called exemption from part 3 of the EPBC Act. I know that the intricacies of such legislation and regulation, particularly when it comes to the environment and the forestry industry, can be lost on a lot of people. However, I appreciate that it’s complex, but it’s a policy area that is so important for thousands of people who rely on a very strong industry, an industry that does employ people in our regions. As I said, it is a particular area of interest here in the Senate. I can assure you that, for me, and for thousands of workers in my state who rely on this industry to make ends meet, these interests are hardly niche; they are of vital importance. The implications of the Federal Court decision were very significant for the forestry industry in this country. They threw in doubt the legal framework within which forestry activity operates.

Regional forestry agreements are essential legal instruments for the Australian forestry industry and are each tailored to a specific geographical area. These agreements provide forestry operators with the certainty they need to carry out their very important work. Recognising the significant environmental approval processes proposed forestry activity must complete before proceeding at a state level, regional forestry agreements allow these processes to stand as those that apply to the forested area, rather than those of the EPBC Act. Indeed, it was never the intention of the EPBC Act to provide the legal framework for forestry operations. This is why regional forestry agreements exist.

With great relief to me and many others, in May 2021, the full bench of the Federal Court handed down a unanimous decision which upheld VicForests’ appeal against the previous Federal Court decision, reinstating the longstanding status quo regarding how regional forestry agreements interact with the EPBC Act. This was a big win, a major win, I might say, for the industry and for the thousands of workers that rely on its continued existence for their own economic security. The later decision by the High Court of Australia to deny leave to appeal this second decision was just as much of a relief. It provided industry with the certainty it needed, certainty that was lost in the first Federal Court decision.

Unfortunately, those opposite appear not to be aware of these essential and very important facts. This should hardly be a surprise. After all, those opposite aren’t really interested in delivering for very key industries in my home state like forestry, and it really is disappointing to see them rehashing old bills from the previous parliament. But there is something that is more disappointing, and it was probably not even acknowledged in the contribution by the good Senator Duniam, someone who I’ve worked very closely with on a number of issues in this place. One of the recommendations that came out of the Senate inquiry into this bill—and I’ll read it out for the benefit of new senators—is:

Recommendation 3

2.71 In the event that the Federal Court decision of 10 May 2021—in relation to VicForests’ appeal to the decision in Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum Inc v VicForests (No. 4) [2020] FCA 704—is appealed and at that time the Australian Government has not legislated the outcome required by Recommendation 1, the committee recommends that the Senate pass the bill.

The only thing about that recommendation is that the appeal was actually denied. Therefore, if you take the Liberal Party’s recommendation from the previous inquiry, we really should not even be here today debating this bill. The recommendation was that we should proceed only if the appeal was successful, but it wasn’t. So, quite frankly, this is redundant. I’m surprised we’re even wasting the Senate’s time this morning debating such a bill. But, as I said earlier in my contribution, it is no surprise, given those opposite are scrambling to find bills to even debate in this place.

Senator Scarr: So negative!

Well, Senator Scarr, to take your interjection, I’m sorry, but I’m not trying to be negative; I’m just being truthful, just putting the facts on the table. Quite frankly, it is disappointing. I was trying to make the point earlier this morning—again, not to be negative, Senator Scarr—that it is also disappointing that the opposition have not provided names for committee memberships in this place, because quite frankly I’d like to get stuck into business as much as you would. I know the Nationals were very keen to get an into inquiry into biosecurity, which I’m very keen for. I’m very happy that this Senate supported my motion, but we don’t have a chair. Why don’t we have a chair? Because the National Party and the Liberal Party haven’t provided the Senate an opportunity with names for committee membership—

Senator Scarr: Point of order on relevance: whilst I understand Senator Ciccone is concerned about the issue of committee memberships and raised it earlier in the proceedings today, it can hardly be in any way relevant to the bill under consideration.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Ciccone, I draw you back to the bill at hand.

I know it’s a sensitive issue, but I thank you very much for your ruling there, Deputy President. As I was saying in my speech earlier today, it is disappointing to see the opposition again not bring forward a bill, that the Senate can deal with today, that actually deals with real issues that matter to working people. It is disappointing that we are here, on the first day of the second sitting week, having to deal with a bill that is, quite frankly, redundant and will not have any practical effect on working people, even by their own recommendation. Recommendation No. 3 makes it very clear that, in the event the appeal was denied by the High Court, we should not even proceed with this bill. Yet we’re here dealing with a bill that shouldn’t even be spoken about today, because it has no practical impact. But what else are we going to talk about today, other than old legislation the opposition are bringing forward from the 46th Parliament?

As we stated the first time this bill came to the Senate—when the opposition’s now environment spokesperson and the former assistant minister for forestry vehemently opposed it—we do not support piecemeal amendments to the EPBC Act. That’s very important. We don’t. It’s important that we do these in a much more coordinated, collaborative fashion, rather than this piecemeal approach that we saw in the previous parliament, which I really hope we don’t see in this new parliament. Our approach—

Senator Scarr: Could you end your speech on a positive note!

Senator Scarr, you like to interject, but I will say it’s not being negative; it’s just being truthful with the Australian people. We are being quite frank and putting all the facts on the table. Senator Green and others in this place have seen the negativity of the previous government in the last three years. What we want to see is outcomes: outcomes that matter to working people; outcomes that will change their lives; and outcomes that support vital industries, like forestry, right around this country. Where are those one billion trees that the former coalition government promised? Not one tree was planted.

Senator McDonald: They’re growing.

Not one tree was planted, Senator McDonald. I don’t think they’re growing, sadly. I don’t think they’re growing, because not one was actually put in the ground. I’ve got a shovel ready to go. We should start planting those trees. Come on, let’s do it. We know that the previous government promised one billion trees and then at the last election said, ‘Actually, we’re now only going to promise a couple of hundred million,’ instead of the one billion that they’d promised. Again, we see the opposition, who are constantly backflipping all the time, promise one thing to the Australian people and then after the election go back on their word. That was the rhetoric and the narrative of the previous Morrison government. The previous Morrison government was all spin and no substance.

Senator Scarr: How are wages?

Wages—just to take the interjections across the aisle—actually are going up. One thing we did—the first thing we did, in fact—when we came into government was to put a submission, signed by the Prime Minister, to the Fair Work Commission to support Australian workers. When it comes to Australian workers, we know who’s on their side. It’s unfortunately not senators opposite to the government.

Senator McDonald: That’s such rubbish!

Sorry, Senator McDonald, but you know that is the case. Why didn’t your Prime Minister sign off on a submission to the Fair Work Commission? Why?

I will go back to the point that we are discussing today, which is forestry. It’s an area of policy that is very close to my heart. Senator Green knows I’ve spoken about forestry many times, and Senator Rice also knows that it’s an area we have spoken about many times in this place. We might have slightly different views, but we do have a view that we need to protect the environment and also protect the sustainability of the industries going forward so we can enjoy both worlds. I think it’s very important that we actually do work together on these very sensitive but important areas of policy.

But, Acting Deputy President Sterle—good to see you, Acting Deputy President, and congratulations on your swearing in early last week—I also just want to make this point before I finish off my contributions: those opposite, in considering how to use their senators’ precious time in this place, in the future ought to perhaps focus on bringing forth bills that actually have importance to the problems that we are all seeking to solve. After 9½ years of inaction, let’s try and work together. Let’s try and work together rather than have this nonsense that we keep seeing from those opposite. I really do hope that we don’t start off on a bad foot here, with the opposition bringing forward bills in private senators’ time that don’t have any practical impact on the lives of working people. That is something that I really do implore of those opposite, and I really do ask them: if they are very serious about changing the lives of working people, maybe they can start by bringing forward a list of senators who can actually participate in our committee system, because I think it’s very important that we start doing the important work that this Senate is meant to do, which is to scrutinise legislation and deliver for working people.